Japanese schools are starting to move commas on big numbers : 10,000 or 1,0000? but why?

Japanese language and linguistic consideration and reasoning may surprise you. Japanese is a tough language. With subtle differences in ways of expressing things, some of which may get you fired if you use them wrong, it can be very intimidating.


But one difficult aspect of the language may come as a surprise: the number system. Japanese does numbers a little differently than English.

Instead of being based on thousands and getting a new word every three-digit places (thousand, million, billion), Japanese is based on ten-thousands and gets a new word every four-digit places (man — ten thousand, oku — 100 million, chō — one trillion). This can get confusing quickly. For example, if you’re trying to count how many hairs are on your cat and you get the number 57,680,000, trying to convert it into Japanese could be a nightmare, since the commas mean nothing. (For reference it’d be 5-thousand 7-hundred 6-ten 8-ten-thousand — go-sen nana-hyaku roku-jū hachi-man).

With all this number confusion, a recent tweet by Japanese twitter user @ito3com may come as a relief to many:

Me talking to my third-grade twins:

Me: “I memorized the number 1,000,000 as hyaku-man (100 ten-thousands) because it has two commas in it.”
Boy: “What? No, the number with two commas is ichi-oku (“one” hundred-millions).”
Girl: “Yup, that’s right.”
Me: “W-what?”
According to my wife, recently at schools they’re teaching to use commas every four digits, not three!

That’s a lot to take in, so let’s break it down:

The number 1,000,000 in Japanese is hyaku-man (100 ten-thousands).
But since Japanese is based on ten-thousands and not one-thousands like English, the comma placements don’t make sense.
If it were instead written as “100,0000” then that would make more sense in Japanese. It looks a lot more like “100 ten-thousand!”
In fact, it seems as though this new system is what his kids are now learning in school.
So a number with two commas in this new system would be 1,0000,0000 (“one” hundred-millions, ichi-oku), not “one million,” like the kids said.
Anyone who has learned Japanese is probably nodding their heads in approval right now. For example, let’s take that number from before: 57,680,000. Converting it into the new system as 5768,0000 is way easier to read in Japanese, because the comma lines up with where the new number-word is used.

Here’s how Japanese netizens reacted to this new system:

“Is this normal? I definitely wasn’t taught this.”
“Yes, Japanese is based on four-digits, but the rest of the world isn’t. Three-digits is the universal norm, so this is just stupid.”
“Doesn’t seem like this will help the kids in the future.”
“I say we just change our language itself to be based on three-digits instead.”
“Such little gain in ease of reading for such loss in worldwide comprehension.”
“I learned this new system, and I turned out just fine. There’s a difference between reading big numbers and international standards.”

Overall it seems as though most are not in favor of the new four-digit system, seeing it as something that Japanese people just need to get used to in order to remain uniform with the rest of the world. Although considering they’re perfectly fine using a different writing system than most of the world, and a different calendar, a different number system wouldn’t seem that out of the ordinary.

On the other hand though, every time I, as an American, see big numbers represented with periods instead of commas (such as 57.680.000), I tend to freak out. So maybe the international consistency is worth it after all.

Source: Twitter/@ito3com, NicoNico News via My Game News Flash
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert image: Pakutaso

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